Ken Orosz, professor of history, recently traveled to Jerusalem at the invitation of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities to take part in a conference providing global context on the British Mandate in Palestine. Orosz’s expertise in French colonial Africa demonstrated that British and French colonial policies in the 1920s and 1930s were not that different.
As Orosz explains, at the end of World War I the victorious allies stripped Germany of its colonies and reneged on promises of independence made to Arab peoples revolting against the Ottoman Empire. Since none of the areas in question were considered ready for independence, the League of Nations created the mandate system which was designed to operate much like a foster-parent relationship. Although mandatory powers like Britain and France were charged with preparing the territories assigned to them for eventual independence, government under the mandate system looked and felt like an extension of colonial rule to locals in Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific.
“When it came to assessing levels of citizenship and readiness for independence, colonial powers often used the treatment and status of local women as a yardstick,” Orosz said. “Since Cameroon was considered far less ‘civilized,’ my initial assumption was that the French must have taken greater steps to revise things like local marriage law and customs than the British did in Palestine. That was certainly true on the surface, but a closer look shows that on a practical level the two mandatory powers shared a common indifference to women’s rights and often unintentionally made the situation worse with their reforms.”
Dr. Orosz’s presentation occurs at the 04:55:00 mark.
Inside Palestine, the British left intact a 1917 Ottoman law which set the age of consent to marry at 17 and then delegated all aspects of Muslim family law to the Supreme Muslim Council (SMC). Over the next few years, the SMC voluntarily embarked on additional reforms, culminating in a 1936 proposal to raise the marriage age to 18. Perversely, the British responded that same year by lowering the age of consent to 15 claiming, against all evidence to the contrary, that they were doing so at the request of the local Palestinian Muslim community. Worse, the British mandatory government never consistently enforced the law on age of consent and worked simultaneously to exclude women from various forms of employment, rendering them ever more dependent on husbands for material support and social standing.
Orosz notes that while the French were disturbed by longstanding marriage customs in Cameroon built around polygamy and husbands paying bride price to their wives’ family, arguing that it appeared to be a form of slavery in which wives were bought and sold, they were reluctant to intervene too deeply in local affairs lest it trigger protests that would complicate other plans for the mandate’s development.
Nevertheless, as early as 1922 the local French administration issued a law granting women divorce rights and requiring their consent before marriage. A few years later, they passed a law limiting bride price amounts, set the age of consent at 14, and required that marriages be registered with the government.
“Unfortunately, this was all theoretical,” Orosz said. “Most Cameroonians knew nothing of the law and simply went about their lives as before. As for the French, they lacked the time, interest, money, and personnel to enforce the law and often turned a blind eye to violations by local elites with whom they were cooperating on economic matters. This is what got them in trouble with Catholic missionaries who began offering refuge to women fleeing polygamous marriages in mission stations while simultaneously running a vocal campaign denouncing the government’s lack of progress on marriage reform.”
Faced with pressure from the missions and the prospect of a League of Nations inspection, in 1930 Governor Marchand reluctantly weighed back into the issue of regulating local marriages via a new law that required women leaving a polygamous marriage to immediately repay their entire bride price and mandating that henceforward civil marriages in front of colonial authorities had to take place before any other kind of marriage.
As Orosz explains, “This part totally backfired. Most women seeking a divorce did not have the money to repay their bride price. Secondly, most Cameroonians lived too far from a government station to get the required civil marriage and opted instead to simply live together. But in doing so, women were pushed into a legal grey zone where they had no protections under the law.”
While the French embraced a new round of reform in 1934 under Marchand’s successor, raising the age of consent to 16 and giving courts new powers to regulate and police marriage, they still lacked the money and personnel necessary to make good on these changes. As a result, marriage practices changed very little until well after World War II.
“What we learn from all this is that the British and French, who often argued that theirs were the better colonial policies, were actually no different,” Orosz said. “They not only failed to fully appreciate conditions on the ground, their rhetoric on the issue of women’s rights failed to match their actions. In fact, when they did act, they often made things worse.”
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